ST. LOUIS - For being division rivals, the St. Louis Blues and Minnesota Wild certainly haven’t seen each other much.
The last (and only) meeting this season was way back on Nov. 29 at Xcel Energy Center. Vladimir Tarasenko scored a goal in regulation and added the shootout winner to help the Blues to a 3-2 victory.
As the Blues host the Wild tonight, they prepare for a team that’s very different in terms of personnel. The Wild team in November didn’t have goalie Devan Dubnyk, who since being traded to Minnesota on Jan. 13, has made 27 consecutive starts, recording a 19-5-1 record with a 1.69 goals-against average, a .937 save-percentage and five shutouts. In addition, the Wild acquired former Blues Jordan Leopold and Chris Stewart at the trade deadline.
Over the last 26 games, Minnesota has surged to the top Wild Card spot in the Western Conference, going 19-5-2 since Jan. 15. They’ve also won six consecutive road games and have collected points in 12 of the last 13 on the road.
“I think our focus has to stay the way it has been all year,” David Backes said of preparing for Minnesota. “That’s working on our game, getting better every day, and whoever our opponent is that night, whether we’re at home or on the road, a division opponent, an Eastern Conference team - we need to play our game and we’ll like the result.
“They’ve changed more personnel than we have, but they’ve got plenty of points, we’ve got plenty of points. We’re going to concentrate on our team and how we’re playing. Take care of business tonight and we’ll take care of the rest after that.”
As the season enters the final stretch, the Blues and Wild will become a bit more familiar with each other. The teams meet three times in the final 15 games. And although the personnel has changed, Blues Head Coach Ken Hitchcock knows what to expect from Minnesota.
“I don’t see any change in the way they play other than there’s a little more calmness with the goaltender in there,” Hitchcock said. “They play us hard, they play in our face, give us a lot of tough games. We seem to get the right goal at the right time (against them), but we’re going to have to play a heck of a lot better than we did back in November if we expect to win the hockey game, because we were not good in that game and still ended up getting two points.”
Defenseman Zbynek Michalek has been skating with the team since last Saturday and declared himself good to go tonight. The 32-year-old Czech Republic native, who was traded to the Blues at the trade deadline, was injured Feb. 14 while with the Arizona Coyotes.
“The symptoms that I had went away, that was the most important thing,” Michalek said. “Then (I was working on) my conditioning - when I felt like I was ready to go, I let them know. I’ll probably be nervous on the first shift playing for a new team. It’s always exciting and some nerves will be there. But hopefully after the first shift, it won’t be that bad.”
“We have to see how he fits with us and who he fits best with, then see how many minutes he can play,” Hitchcock said. “He played a lot of heavy, hard minutes in Phoenix, but we’ve got other people to share that load, so we’ll ease him back in and see how he looks.”
At the time of his injury, Michalek ranked 12th in the NHL with 130 blocked shots in 53 games. Michalek has played in 696 games over his 11-year career.
“I didn’t look forward to playing against him, so when you play with him, typically those guys are great teammates,” Backes said. “The way he plays seems to fit right with our brand and it should be another addition to us that will be well welcome.”
Michalek is expected to be paired with Jay Bouwmeester tonight. Petteri Lindbohm will sit out.
“(Lindbohm) hasn’t deserved to come out based on his play, but other guys are playing well, too,” Hitchcock said. “It’s hard on the players but good for the coach. We’ve got guys who are playing well that get to watch and they’re going to be hungry when they go back in.
“If you’re in, don’t play poorly because you’re going to be out.”
After tonight’s game, the Blues will travel to Dallas, where they begin a season-long six-game road trip that also takes them through Calgary, Winnipeg, Minnesota, Detroit and Pittsburgh. The Blues won’t be back in St. Louis until March 25.
With a shutout against Philadelphia on Thursday, Brian Elliott tied Jaroslav Halak for the franchise shutout record (20). Since the start of the 2011-12 season, Elliott has recorded the best starts per shutout ratio in the League - recording a shutout every 5.9 starts. Against the Wild, Elliott is 6-0-0 with a 1.76 goals-against average and a .915 save-percentage.
Patrik Berglund will be back in the lineup after being a healthy scratch on Thursday. "He’s been off-kilter the last three games, this is reset so let’s get going," Hitchcock said. "The way he was before was really good."
The Blues have won 10 of the last 11 meetings with the Wild (10-1-0), including five consecutive games at Scottrade Center.
The Blues are 12-8-0 against the Central Division this season and 6-4-0 at home.